Saturday, July 13, 2019

History Of Tourism In Bhutan: PART III of V

First Tour Guides
Ten of Bhutan's earliest tour guides were recruited on 1st January, 1974. They were:

1. Gandhi Nawang Dorji of Nawang Woods
2. Nim Gyaltshen of Etho Metho Tours
3. Karchung of Bhutan Lhomen Adventure
4. Late Kheng Sonam
5. Aku Chewang
6. Pema Chophel
7. Tseten Gyeltshen
8. Late Kinley Wangdi
9. Rapey Kinga
10. Kunzang Wangchuk

These ten received rudimentary guiding training so that they could be used to take care of the VIPs attending the Coronation ceremony of 2nd June, 1974.

First Tour Group
Bhutan’s first paying tourist group arrived Bhutan on 2nd October, 1974. The group was led by an American of Swedish descend - Lars-Eric Lindblad, founder of Lindblad Travel, Connecticut, USA. There were 12 in the group.

Lars-Eric Lindblad who led the first-ever tour group to Bhutan in 1974

Bhutan’s First Cultural Guides
Gandhi Nawang Dorji and Tseten Gyeltshen were the country’s first two cultural guides. They guided Bhutan’s first tour group led by the American Lars-Eric Lindblad.

Gandhi Nawang Dorji, one of the two first cultural guides who guided Bhutan's first tour group in 1974

Dominic Sitling recalls that the tour group entered Bhutan through India, organized by the Company Chairman Mr. Rana of Mercury Travels, New Delhi.

Nim Gyaltshen, one of Bhutan's first 10 tour guides - now a part-owner of Etho Metho - remembers that tour leader Lars-Eric Lindblad paid the tour cost in CASH. Electronic transfer of funds was unheard of during those early days.

Mr. Karma Sonam was a guesthouse waiter at the government guesthouse in Motithang, in the year 1971 - when he was just 19 years old. He now operates a laundry service in Thimphu. He recalls that the first Director of the Department of Tourism was late Dasho Tseten Dorji - who also doubled as the Personal Secretary to HRH Ashi Sonam Choden Wanghuck.

Karma Sonam as he looks now, at 67 years of age

Karma Sonam vividly remembers that Dasho Tseten Dorji went down all the way to Kharbandi Hotel in Phuentsholing - to conduct Bhutan’s first tour group, headed by Lars-Eric Lindblad to Thimphu. The group stopped at Chasilakha Rest House where they were served tea. Karma Sonam carried lunch from Thimphu and met the group at the Chapcha View Point called Zem-La.

Karma Sonam does not remember if the tour group attended Thimphu Dromche/Tsechu - but I believe that they would have - which would explain their choice of October month to make the trip to Bhutan. However, a team member who looked after the group by the name of Gopa Yeshey remembers that they visited Punakha where they were put up in a tented camp at Zomlingthang.

First Trek and Trek Route
Trekking began in Bhutan for the first time in 1976. The Trek route was Druk Path. There were 10 in the group. The trekking group was from Germany.

First Trekking Guide
Karchung of Bhutan Lhomen Adventure was the first trekking guide - he guided the first trekking group that did the Druk Path Trek in 1976. He was supported by Gopa Yeshey as the organizer, and late Meme Tawla and Tek Bahadur as cooks.

Karchung of Bhutan Lhomen Adventure was the first trekking guide who guided Bhutan's first trek group on the Druk Path, in 1976

The second trek route was the Jumolhari Base Camp Trek. It was opened up in 1980. The third trek route was the Laya/Linzhi/Snowman Trek. It was opened in 1984.

First Whitewater Descent
Bhutan’s first whitewater descent was in 1981 - arranged by Bhutan Travel Service, USA. The 3-members whitewater rafting team was comprised of Wick Walker, Eric Evans and Jamie McEwan - all known luminaries in the whitewater rafting circles.

First Pony Contractors
Gopa Yeshey clearly remembers that the Ministry of Finance provided the pack ponies for the trek in 1976. Thus the honor should go to the Ministry of Finance as the first pony contractors in the country. During those days, Ministry of Finance maintained a barren of mules for carriage of government stores around the country. The mules were under the care of caretake Aap Tsetse.

First Private Pony Contractors
Gopa Yeshey recalls that after the first Druk Path Trek, ponies for the subsequent treks were arranged through Phuntsho Wangdi of Paro. The second pony contractor was also from Paro - one Sonam Rinchen.

First Overseas Tour Agents
Dominic Sitling recalls that the first four overseas tour agents who worked with DoT/BTC were:

1.  Mercury Travels, India
2.  Ms. Marie Brown, Bhutan Travel Service, USA
3.  Travel Corporation of India, India
4.  Sita World Travel, India

Bhutan Travel Service, USA looked after the US market while the rest of the three Indian agents covered Europe, Japan and the South East.

First FAM Group
Bhutan’s first FAM group was organized in 1980, by Lars-Eric Lindblad, USA. One source put the number of this FAM group at 100. However, Wangcha Sangay who headed the Division that looked after tour operations disagrees - he says  that such a number is IMPOSSIBLE - although he cannot remember, he thinks the maximum would have been between 10-15 PAX at the most.

First Tourists from Japan
The first tourists from Japan entered Bhutan in 1976. The group was brought in by the Japanese tour company called Value Tours, Japan. Subsequently, another Japanese tour company by the name Saiyu Travels started to bring in Japanese tourists.

Bhutan’s First Tourism Sub-Contractors
Although tourism trade was a monopoly of the government, there were already some private tour operators operating in the country, even before the privatization of the business in 1991. Bhutan’s first five tourism sub-contractors were, in order of establishment, the following:

1.  International Treks & Tours Private Ltd., 1982
2.  Yu-Druk Tours & Treks, 1985
3.  Chundu Travel & Tours, 1986
4.  Yangphel Adventure Travel, 1988
5.  Etho Metho Tours & Treks Pvt. Ltd., 1990

They are categorized as sub-contractors, and not as tour operators, since they were not licensed to operate tours. The erstwhile government owned BTC sub-contracted portions of their business to these pioneering operators - particularly trekking, since they did not have enough manpower to handle it all themselves. All of these companies subsequently became tour companies, upon privatization of the tourism business in 1991.

If monopolizing the business were not enough, the government was heavy-handed in other ways. For instance, at one point the Auditor General of the Royal Audit Authority called the owner of Yu-Druk to his office and ordered her to shut down her business - on the grounds that she was married to a civil servant. She refused - saying that her business did not interfere with her husband’s work. If at all, he could ask her husband to resign from the civil service.

It is heartwarming to know that these pioneering tour operators are still in existence, and all doing very well, THANK YOU.

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